Photographing Ray Bradbury

Pretending to be Ahab, he had a whale of a time.

“People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it.” Ray Bradbury / Photograph ©1985 Tom Zimberoff

The New York Times called Ray Bradbury (1920- 2012) “the writer most responsible for bringing modern science fiction into the literary mainstream.” From “Fahrenheit 451” to “The Martian Chronicles” and everything in between, before, or after, his works will remain a lasting legacy.

As an assignment for Los Angeles magazine, for their 1985 Halloween issue, I was tasked to photograph a number of showbiz-connected folks (unequivocally Ray Bradbury topped the list), and to portray them in the guise of any character they chose. I had author Robert Bloch dressed as Jack the Ripper brandishing a butcher’s knife dripping with blood. His novel, “Psycho,” inspired Alfred Hitchcock to make the movie. Katherine Helmond dressed up as Cleopatra, wearing one of Elizabeth Taylor’s gowns from the 20th Century Fox production of 1963. Helmond starred in one of my favorite Terry Gilliam movies, “Brazil,” and was known for her TV roles on “Soap” and “Who’s the Boss?”. The list is longer, but I’ll include only one more description because it deserves a chortle.

Linda Blair was costumed as a Disney-esque fairy godmother, replete with a magic wand. Famous for her revolving head routine and projectile barfing, she starred in William Friedkin’s 1973 horror flick “The Exorcist.” (That movie almost made the Andersen’s Split Pea Soup company go bankrupt, if you know what I mean.) I posed Linda atop a huge pile of fake snow in my studio, wearing her sparkly-white chiffon dress and a tiara, waving her wand. What I hadn’t known, until after the picture was published, was that she had been indicted on felony drug conspiracy charges. She pleaded guilty and got probation. I made her look like she was standing on a mountain of cocaine. She was a good sport.

Ray Bradbury wanted to be portrayed as his all-time favorite character from the canon of American literature: Captain Ahab from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. By the way, Bradbury wrote the screenplay for John Huston’s adaptation of Melville’s novel on the silver screen, featuring Gregory Peck cast as Ahab. Ray thought he could do a better job.

If the harpoon doesn’t look exactly true to form, it’s because my stylist, Shari Geffen, and I had less than a day to come up with all of the props we would need to make Ray up like Ahab. But Shari was a genius. She made a reasonable facsimile of a harpoon out of found material and got the rest of the props and costume from, I think, Western Costume, a rental company catering to the movie and television industries in Hollywood. Lisa-Ann Pedrianna, our makeup artist, painted a collodion scar wickedly down the side of Ray’s face and attached the beard.

Being part whale himself, with his prothesis fashioned from the jaw of another sperm whale, to replace the leg that Moby Dick chomped off, and mythically sanctified by fire when a lightning bolt struck his face (rumored to run down the length of his body), Ahab was nuts.

My personal contribution to the costume was to rattle-can a silver dollar with gold paint, representing the Spanish coin Ahab nailed to the mast of the Pequod. “[W]hosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!” So said Ahab.

The whalebone peg leg required Ray to endure having his ankle cinched up behind his back and tied with a rope around his waist. No Photoshop in those days. He stood that way for several hours! Then, to show off to his wife, he hopped into a cab — literally, of course — and rode home that way. The cabbie returned the costume and the peg leg the next day.


Ray Bradbury was a sweet man. He wrote me a note, by hand, to say how much fun he had during the shoot. In fact, for a couple of Christmases, I received a hand-drawn card from him. He started cartooning as a boy, and drew his own “Sunday panels” to illustrate the stories he concocted in the manner of Edgar Rice Burroughs (“Tarzan of the Apes” and “John Carter of Mars”).

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